Du Bois

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Looking Forward: Linking Educational Opportunity with Social Justice.

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In the mid- 1930s, Du Bois (1935) wrote, “the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed

schools but [quality] education” (p. 328). His words have proven prophetic. Limited school

integration in an unequal society has not, in and of itself, meant higher achievement for Black

students. In fact, while there were steady declines in racial achievement gaps on the NAEP in the

1970s and 1980s, it is unclear whether or not this can be attributed to desegregation efforts.

Clotfelter (2004) argues that, while its impact on achievement is inconclusive, desegregation maybe

associated with some modest gains in reading for Black students, no gains in mathematics, and

no impact (positive or negative) for White students. Attending integrated schools may also be

associated with more tolerant racial attitudes (an important issue in the increasing racially diverse

society). However, integrated schools (to the extent that they have existed) have failed to create

equal opportunity for all students, in part, because racial inequality in the society as a whole or

within the schools, in numerous cases, has not been directly confronted. As a result, reforms

designed to address racial inequality have failed on three fronts. Firstly, they have not sufficiently

addressed the racial inequalities that result from contemporary and historic discrimination. Instead,

the educational policies have often treated these inequalities as if they were a separate issue, or, in

an ironic twist of logic, suggested that these broader inequalities result from educational

limitations within communities of color. As the discussion above shows, even in affluent,

ostensibly integrated suburban communities, the racial inequality is stark. Educators need to attend

to this structural inequality if they seek to reduce racial achievement gaps in schools.

Secondly, the institutional inequalities within schools that contribute to educational

disadvantages for Black students have not been effectively addressed. These Black students are

consistently placed in the least advantaged locations for learning while their White counterparts

are often placed in the most advantaged locations. Efforts to transform the institutional practices

that lead to these patterns have often fallen prey to political conflicts driven by those who seek to

maintain their children’s educational advantages (Noguera & Wing, 2006). These school-based

inequities need to be eliminated.

Finally, the deeply ingrained belief that Whites are intellectually and culturally superior to

Blacks has not been fully confronted and dismissed. The intertwining of race and intelligence has

a long and troubling history. There is often a failure to acknowledge the powerful ideological role

that these ideas play in justifying structural and institutional inequality and potentially creating

psychological barriers of achievement for Black students (Steele, 2003).

While these structural, institutional, and symbolic issues are critical to reinforcing educational

inequality, reforms (including those emphasizing desegregation) have often been highlighted as

manipulating school structures. Whether it was the creation of the “one best system” of

bureaucratic school organization in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the push for desegregation,

especially since the 1950s, the move toward decentralization in the 1960s and 1970s, the school

restructuring movement of the 1980s and 1990s, or the current accountability and small-schools

movements, education reforms have focused mostly on changing the organization of schools (e.g.,

governance structures or student composition). In fact, school desegregation efforts have often

equated racial balance in student enrollment with educational opportunity. Bell (2004) writes, “In

school desegregation, the goal of equal educational opportunity became merged with racial

balance and busing as a means to its attainment. The rejection of the means was viewed as a defeat

ofthegoal”(p. 120).

National civil rights leadership has often resisted efforts to address the educational needs of

Black students by means other than school desegregation. But school desegregation has proven to

be an illusive (and not altogether effective) goal. While some measure of desegregation was

achieved during the period of active enforcement of desegregation laws (particularly in the South),

the current trend is toward increasing re-segregation (Clotfelter 2004; Orfield & Easton, 1996).

Researchers at the Harvard Civil Rights Project have tracked this pattern over the past decade and

found that Black and Latino/a students are currently far more likely than Whites to attend schools

with mostly populated students of color (Sunderman & Orfield, 2006). Whites, however, attend

schools in which the vast majority of students are White. Likewise, the typical Black or Latino/a

student attends a school with much higher poverty rates than the typical White student.


Given current population trends (the expansion of communities of color as a percentage of the

total U.S. and suburban populations), the incremental nature of structural change, and the

resistance to desegregation among Whites (Clotfelter, 2004), the typical school attended by Black

and Latino/a students should be expected to become increasingly populated by other Black and

Latino/a students who are low income. This means that one critical educational challenge that is

faced is to provide quality educational opportunities for students of color regardless of the race

and social class composition of their schools. While educators and lawmakers may push for

integration across race and social class lines and continue the struggle to make integrated schools

and communities as racially equal as possible, they must not allow the commitment to integration

to overshadow the quest for quality education for all students.

That quest can be advanced by studying the historic and contemporary contexts that have led

to success among Black students. Historically, African Americans have shown a strong

commitment to education, being among the earliest advocates for universal public education in the

South following emancipation (Anderson 1988; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003). Blacks also

created successful educational institutions prior to the Civil Rights era desegregation efforts

(Walker, 1996). The post-Civil Rights era is also full of examples of successful educational

contexts for African American students (Morris 2004; Perry, Steele, & Hilliard, 2003). However,

researchers and practitioners have not sufficiently learned from these successes and applied the

lessons from them to reform efforts.

Because students navigate an educational terrain with distinct advantages and disadvantages

based on race, educational strategies need to be adopted that simultaneously attack the structural,

institutional, and symbolic inequalities that characterize the educational system and society. This

means reconnecting issues of educational opportunity and achievement to the broader struggle for

social justice (Anyon, 2005; Rothstein, 2004). Indeed, the future of quality education for students

of color will depend in part (as it always has) on continuous activism by communities of color

within the political, economic, social, educational, and ideological realms. It will also depend on

an increased commitment among those in powerful positions to create social policies that enhance

rather than inhibit opportunity for all groups. However, given the slow pace of structural change

and the potential permanence of racial inequality (Bell, 1992), a more active search for strategies

that enhance educational opportunities is needed, even in the context of a separate and unequal


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